People used to take pictures and have the film developed, making copies for friends and family members from special events. Some organized their pictures in photo albums, while others stored them in a box or tossed them into a drawer to be retrieved at some time in the future. Pictures continue to be shared, but now it is a digital version. Predictions of a digital Dark Age come from Vint Cerf, Google vice president and Chief Internet Evangelist.
Cerf, known as the “Father of the Internet” for contributing to the definition of how data packets move in cyberspace, offers a perspective with a deep understanding of the Internet. His concerns of a digital Dark Age, and losing the history captured digitally are well founded. He cites the rapid pace of technological advancement as the main concern, rather than any terrorist attack. Without the effort to update the content, stored digitally it could be lost forever.
Pictures, documents, and even music saved on today’s device may not be accessible by a device sometime in the future. Computers, tablets, and cellphones are constantly evolving and there are no guarantees of backward compatibility. Even if something is stored on a newer device, the application or operating system may not allow that data to be opened and viewed as it was when it was originally saved on an older device.
The digital Dark Age may have begun with floppy discs. They used to be the norm, and now there is no way to use them in a computer today. CDs can still be used in many computers, but most are moving to thumb drives with more memory than early computers had.
Hardware evolution is not the only concern, the applications of today are evolving as well. Whatever application was used to store the content today may not be able to retrieve it someday off in the future.
This revelation is reminiscent of the fears surrounding the year 2000. The concern then was about data being corrupted due to the date change affecting documentation stored, and may have been the first glimpse into the possibility of a digital Dark Age. This new concern includes all data stored digitally and reaches beyond that to emails, blogs, photos, all things stored on a variety of devices as well as all of what is stored on a cloud.
Recently, a glitch uncovered by a security researcher gave him access to delete any public photo from Facebook. He chose instead to inform Facebook, collecting a $12,500 reward for his response to the discovery. This situation highlights the vulnerability of digitally stored content.
In the distant future there may be no looking back. The present may become known as the digital Dark Age, with content lost to future generations unless something is created to preserve all that is stored digitally. Cerf discusses one idea, and that would be to preserve all software and hardware like a museum would do; however, he suggests preserving them in digital form on cloud servers. This digital snapshot will recreate the past in the future. The snapshot would need to include all aspects, and those are: the content, the application used, the hardware, and operating system. The whole concept Cerf refers to as “digital vellum”, and encourages the development of this concept.
The very real possibility of a digital Dark Age predicted by Cerf may become a reality, unless his sage advice is followed. He offers a solution with “digital vellum”, and it has been demonstrated. He admits that at present it is rudimentary, but it works and with development, it could be how the present is viewed in the future.
By Ailey Hines
Photo by Christa Burns – License